The new face of COSI
Paul Sutter, the museum's first chief scientist, hopes to become the Jack Hanna of COSI.
Paul Sutter checks his microphone as the lights dim in the COSI planetarium. The crowd is small, but that doesn't matter. All the 34-year-old scientist needs is one person willing to raise a hand and ask something-anything-about the universe. "So, what do you want to talk about?" he asks.
Plenty, it turns out.
For 30 minutes on this steamy Friday evening in August, Sutter answers questions yelled out from the seats, dipping into a seemingly endless store of facts and silly jokes to explain black holes, gravitational waves, Jupiter, Mars, Titan (Saturn's largest moon) and solar flares. "Solar flares-that's when the sun barfs," he says while images of spewed plasma fill the planetarium's ceiling.
Sutter's homespun explanations of astronomy and astrophysics are filled with similar metaphors. (The Perseid meteor shower is really a cosmic trail of "comet poop.") That's one of the reasons why COSI named him the center's first chief scientist in March. "Paul is so very good at public speaking," says Josh Sarver, COSI's senior director of experience. "He is so dynamic and natural."
At COSI, Sutter's role has three parts: to ensure the accuracy of the science presented at the museum; to act as a liaison to Ohio State University, where he works in the astronomy department; and to be the public face of science at COSI. Sutter says the initial phone call he got from COSI went something like this: "Do you want to meet for lunch and talk about being our Jack Hanna?"
Sutter, who earned a doctorate in physics in 2011, is a serious scientist. But lately, he is just as devoted to science education. "Paul is on the same kind of track as Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson in terms of bringing science to the public," says John Beacom, an astronomy and physics professor at Ohio State and the director of its Center of Cosmology and Astro Particle Physics.
Sutter hosts a podcast called Ask a Spaceman! that answers any and all questions about astronomy and astrophysics, such as "What if the moon disappears?" and "How will the sun die?" He created a YouTube series called Space in Your Face, in which he and guests explain astrophysics in two minutes. And he hosts a podcast series called Realspace, during which he interviews young researchers about their work. (In the last few minutes, he asks questions submitted by his niece. He asked one physicist if she ever wanted a mermaid tail. Of course she did.)
"I love having conversations with people," says Sutter, who lives in Newark with his wife, Mandi, who runs an online bakery. "I am not a trained science communicator. But I am a scientist, and I am learning how to be a better communicator."
Sarver says that kind of outreach is what COSI wants. "It is great having that one voice and that one face," he says.
To that end, Sutter appears on TV news programs, is quoted in newspapers, writes for websites and is all over social media. As for the future, look for Sutter, well, everywhere. "I want to bring COSI outside the walls of COSI," he says. "There are lots of people in the community who are hungry for science, and a lot of the community is not getting it."